NMAJH Uses Music to Bridge Pandemic Gaps


Of all the typical public events that seem so far away from returning to normalcy, singing loudly with other people in enclosed spaces could be the farthest of all.

Deborah Sacks Mintz |
Courtesy of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute

Musicians and singers across the country have responded with a slew of online performance models, to varying degrees of success. The National Museum of American Jewish History, in partnership with Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, is finding that online performances may be a way to connect with more people interested in its mission than ever before.
“When we can’t get into our intimate theater because a pandemic is passing over us, it’s such a great way to connect, using music,” said Dan Samuels, NMAJH’s public programs manager.

NMAJH and the Rising Song Institute, based in Mt. Airy, have teamed up for a series of concerts and conversations called “Songs of Our People, Songs of Our Neighbors.” In the last few weeks, Samuels has interviewed Rising Song musicians on Facebook Live, interspersing the video with footage of recordings made by the musicians within the last year. Each of the first two videos, with Joey Weisenberg and Deborah Sacks Mintz, has drawn more than 10,000 viewers. The final performance, by Rabbi Yosef Goldman, co-director of the Rising Song Institute, took place on July 1.

Weisenberg is the co-founder and co-director of Rising Song, and Sacks Mintz, a rabbinical student based in New York, is one of the most sought-after Jewish musicians in the country, and a 2019 New York Jewish Week 36 under 36. She is also the community singing consultant of the institute, a job that takes her all over the country to encourage Jewish groups of various denominations to more meaningfully engage with song in their community prayer practice.

This program features discussions and music that focus on the interplay between various historical forms of Jewish music, as well as the interactions of those forms with the various Diaspora contexts in which they are forged, from North Africa to the United States.

Joey Weisenberg and Dan Samuels during their June 17 discussion
| Courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History

Samuels, a musician, was familiar with the institute’s work, and had even played live with Weisenberg in the past. As he searched for engaging programs to steady the museum during the pandemic, his mind went quickly to Weisenberg and his organization. The missions of the institute and NMAJH are well-suited to one another, he believes.

“This all came together organically,” Samuels said.

For Sacks Mintz, trying to understand the interplay between Jewish music and its historical contexts is part of what she’s always understood to be interesting about Jewish music, which made her a good match for the institute. As Weisenberg explained it, “much of our music is a mix between ancient Jewish modalities and the modern American soundscape.” As an undergraduate, Sacks Mintz studied ethnomusicology, learning about how music functions within different communities.

Though her music was prerecorded for her June 24 conversation with Samuels, she’s spent plenty of time singing live via Zoom and Facebook Live during quarantine, which has been an adjustment.

“The number one thing that changes is the fact that we lose our most important tool, which is the ability to read a room, because there’s no more room to read. When we lose that tool, what we have to do is recreate that tool, mentally and emotionally,” she said.

The third and final conversation in the series occurred July 1. The music of Goldman, of a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi family, “is just so beautiful,” Samuels said.

Goldman finds that his work has come to rely more often on the sounds of Syrian Jews in recent months. Exploring such a relationship, he said, is part of the Rising Song’s mission.

Samuels said that Goldman’s voice can bring him to tears; more broadly speaking, the goal of “Songs of Our People, Songs of Our Neighbors” is for Goldman’s voice is to bring people together.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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